Doc, It Hurts When I Do This….

WRITING 02Yeah, I know. Old joke, but then old jokes come to mind when I find myself repeating old mistakes. Stale humor goes with stale habits.

Some time ago a friend asked me to comment on another story in a magazine I was also in, and I did. Regretted it immediately, and belatedly remembered why I stopped doing that. I see it as no win, at least from my own perspective. Whether I honestly like a story or not, and especially when I have a “stake” in the issue I can’t see it as anything other than 1) sucking up to my peers or 2) dissing the competition. You see the problem — I don’t trust my motives. I consider this wise, because anything I write about the issue will involve my own writerly ego, which is an extremely unreliable narrator. The ego is important and extremely useful, but move it out of its proper sphere (getting the work done, dealing with either the hostility or (worse) indifference that usually follows) and it becomes a liability. By extension and in hindsight this is why I stopped reviewing, period (though of course I never reviewed a magazine issue I was in). Now, reviewing was a useful phase and I’m glad I did it when I did. It helped me analyze my own work when I had to figure out what was wrong (or right) with a story I was reviewing. I think I was a very decent reviewer while it lasted, never pulled a punch or skimped on praise when appropriate. But then it was time to stop, and wanting more time for my own work was only part of the reason. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I was never comfortable with it and was never going to be. I will do it now and again, but only when I can’t help myself. The infrequency of reviews posted here should attest.

Oddly enough, in the context of a writer’s group I have no problem at all giving very harsh criticsm when I think it’s required. That, of course, is when the story can still be saved. Sometimes, it comes down to telling a proud parent that their baby is really, really, ugly. I have a problem with this. Other writers don’t.


In Which I Am a Sadistic Rat

The Devil Has His Due-ebook coverI really don’t like thinking that I’m a sadistic rat, mind you. I mean, I know I’m a long way from being a good person–keeping in mind that I have rather high standards in that regard–I’m far too aware of my own shortcomings, and all the times I knew what the right thing to do was…and didn’t do it. So no, I don’t consider myself a particularly good person in the sense of being a credit to my species, but a “sadistic rat”? Isn’t that a little harsh?

No, not really. See, I’ve been working on a writing project in plot resolution mode for a bit. It’s slowing down the actual word count, but it’s a necessary step. And the question “What’s at stake for my hero in this?” quickly morphs into “What is the absolute worst thing I can do to him?” And I thought of something diabolical. Nasty. Heart-breaking. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not the “sadistic rat” part. That came out when I realized that the absolute worst thing wasn’t actually the absolute worst thing, because I had already done the absolute worst thing to him that I could do in a previous adventure…which wasn’t the absolute worst thing either, because it occurred to me that the absolute worst thing was something I’d done to him even before the reader ever met the guy, something that continues to haunt him until the present situation and will beyond it, assuming he survives.

So, not the “absolute worst thing” I could do to him, because I’d already done it. Twice over. But pretty damn bad. And, yes, I’m going to do it. The story needs it, and the story always comes first.

I am a sadistic rat, no question. It goes with the job description.

Don’t Get Comfortable

Our Lady of 47 Ursae Majoris The problem with being comfortable is…well, the “comfort” part. As human beings, we like our comforts. Very smart people spend a lot of time trying to figure out new ways of making people comfortable, and there’s a reason for that. Kick up the recliner with a beer and a bag of nachos, watch the game, what could be better? So far as comfort goes, not a lot. Just everything else. Comfort is the killer.

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

For writers, painters, musicians, artists of all sorts? Not just a bad thing, but possibly the absolute worst thing you can do is to get too comfortable. Not physically—we’re not talking “starving in garrets” here–but in every other way that matters to your work. And it is way too easy to get comfortable, because as you progress in your work, whatever it is, you will eventually discover your strengths. We all have them. On a process level, you may find that you have a gift for tight, vivid descriptions, or catchy dialogue. So much so that you find yourself fighting the urge to make your stories all description or all dialogue, and that’s a good thing. You’re going to know instinctively that overemphasis on one or the other is a bad idea structurally and esthetically. Yet there’s a level to this where instinct doesn’t serve quite as well.

Once you get out of process, there are more things to be good at. Yes, I know, that’s not a bad thing…until it is. Say you have a gift for painting landscapes. Comes easily, almost naturally. You’d be quite happy painting landscapes for the rest of your life. Or writing space opera. Say you’re really good at writing space opera, you have a devoted readership who will devour whatever you write on the subject. Even if the tenth book feels a lot to you like the first three. Are you writing the same story over and over? Maybe not, you work at keeping it fresh, for yourself if for no other reason. Or maybe what you’re really good at is writing one sort of space opera. Maybe your readers won’t notice. Chances are they will, eventually, but chances also are that you’ll burn out long before they do.

Playing to your strengths can be a trap. If you want to avoid it, every now and then you have to get out of your comfort zone. This can be easy or extremely difficult, but what matters is that you do it. I’m mostly a fantasist. That’s where I’m comfortable, and I don’t plan to leave. But every now and then I have to do a pure quill science fiction story. Partly because the story was there to write, but also to stretch the writerly muscles that don’t get enough exercise. I’ve done comic scripts for the same reason. Or to talk about an extreme example, for our last anniversary I wrote and performed an original song for my wife. Music and lyrics both. I’d never written a song lyric in my life, and I’d certainly never attempted music. As for the result, let’s just say the critics were being kind. I may not do it again. But I might.

Or as one of my guitar mentors put it—“Don’t practice what you can do. Practice what you can’t do.”

And, now and again, surprise the hell out of yourself. It’s good for you.

Lord Grant Me Patience and I Mean Right Now! Wait…On Second Thought, Nevermind

I sold another story recently and I’ll give details when something’s official (as in the contract is signed). One side-effect of the sale, oddly enough, was to get me thinking about rejections.

Specifically, how bloody long they often take. The truism is that it “always takes an editor longer to say yes than to say no,” but I’m here to tell you that’s a load of baloney. Continue reading

Just Open the Box, Dammit

I am Schrodinger’s Cat. And I’m getting a little sick of it, frankly. Is it too much to ask for the wave function to collapse already? Yeah, I know. At the end of it all I might be dead. I might not. But at least the whole mess will be #$@# settled.

Fine, it’s a metaphor. Or rather, a metaphorical description of an actual situation. (And for anyone who hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about, Google “Schrodinger’s Cat,” and you’ll find more than you ever wanted to know). The point is that I’m trying to be two things at once, and they are mutually exclusive things, so basically I’m at war with myself on a continual basis, and how’s that working out? Not so well. I know I’m not alone in this, in fact I strongly suspect that many of you out there are have the same problem, and this is it in the proverbial nutshell—I want my work to be well known and widely read. I personally do not want to be well known. But achieving one almost always negates the other, unless you’re writing under a pseudonym, and even that’s not a gurantee.

From a practical standpoint, writing is the perfect avocation for someone who doesn’t especially want to be noticed. Continue reading